Revisiting Lessons from a Cowardly Lion

The Wizard of Oz is one of those rare delights in which the movie is just as—if not better—than the book. And who among us who grew up with the story could forget the main characters—Dorothy, the Tinman, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow—who were all searching for the Wizard of Oz to help them find something that they did not have or no longer had. But it’s the Cowardly Lion who so desperately wanted the Wizard to give him courage, whose storyline I thought about recently.

Over the weekend my sister and I went to see The Help, as we had both read the wonderful book by Kathryn Stockett. There are few books I would put on the same shelf as one of my all-time favorites, To Kill a Mockingbird, but upon further re-reads of The Help and a very well done movie adaptation, I think I’m ready to make some more room near that esteemed bookshelf. There’s a scene fresh in my memory from the movie, in which the pastor of the maids’ church says to the congregation that courage means loving your enemies no matter what they do, and not being afraid to do what needs to be done. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells Scout and Jem that courage is starting something you know that you have already lost before you started, but still seeing it through to the end no matter what. I used to sometimes have the thought that all the big chances to be super courageous had already happened in history—the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, etc. But we find our own courage—big and small—every day, under a multitude of circumstances.

Sometimes you don’t recognize how brave someone is until someone else points it out. One of my co-workers from my last stay in Ghana was from the Uganda branch of the non-profit. His dream in life was to move to America, so I told him the story of how my parents moved our entire family to the States. After I finished the story he exclaimed that he wanted to be just like my father. He said that my father, having less age than he (my co-worker) did now, had the courage and the vision to dream of something great for his family and then see it through. I had never quite thought about it in that manner before. I guess for me personally courage was born in locker-filled hallways and on the playground. The type of courage that teaches you when to let things go, blame people’s words on ignorance, and know when to speak up because sometimes too far was too far and too much had to be told down. The courage it takes to believe differently, act differently, and look differently. For one of my neighbors in Ghana, Evans, courage meant leaving his town for the first time and traveling to another city with me for his birthday. Evans is a generally shy, reserved young man. His mom had me over for dinner every night during my internship, and during those visits, I got to know Evans very well. On one of those evenings early during my time there, Evans made the strange request for me to become his personal motivation speaker because, as he explained to me, he thought that I was very brave and had a lot of self-confidence. Evans thought people in the community believed him to be slow and boring. I thought that was rubbish, but I invented nightly seminars in which together, Evans and I week by week discovered the wonderful traits that I always knew he had. And in that trip to Cape Coast, when the boundaries of his safety zone were pushed, I think Evans realized just how courageous he himself was. He even helped us get back home when all the buses going back to Accra were sold out and I had no idea what to do. It’s in those moments where you smile and realize that one of life’s little jokes is indeed like the statement that it’s not so much what we do that defines us, but what we find ourselves capable of doing when we least expect it.

The Cowardly Lion never needed the Wizard’s power. This proved beneficial for him, as the Wizard had no powers, as is true of so many false tools and people we pursue instead of our own inner strength. Though terrified, the Cowardly Lion stood ready to face danger. To me, courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear but rather in spite of fear. There are many things I’m nervous about as my fellowship year comes closer and closer to departure day, but I’m going to board my plane anyway. Because, at the end of the day, the lessons learned from a cowardly lion prove that courage, in large part, is standing up as tall as one knows how and thinking, in the words of Charles F. Lummis, “I am bigger than anything that can happen to me. All these things, sorrow, misfortune, and suffering, are outside my door. I am in the house, and I have the key.”

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